Excuses are superfluous when invited to drive the pinched length of the Columbia River Gorge. Verdant green drips from every vertical surface. Slender fissures in rock yield to tumbling waterfalls. The roadway cantilevers over a rabid, fizzing cauldron of river, droplets racing themselves to a union with the Pacific. Vertigo evaporates with eye contact, drinking images resplendent with wet, with ooze, with confounding drama where it joins the desert and is sucked dry.
The face of Nature’s preening wasn’t what mattered to me when my architect friend Alice asked me to drive from Portland, through the Gorge, to the Maryhill Museum of Art. My notions were taken with History, the ghostly echoes of bedraggled explorers, Lewis and Clark and their whoring, whooping Corps of Discovery. I strained my ears to hear them, shuffled my feet to (maybe) stand where they once did. With a weaving, distracted gait, I drove while Alice made background noise for my epic main soundtrack.
She kept talking about this………..Thing. The music swelled Thing! with History, crescendoed with Thing! Actual Historical Marker, Thing! teased with a pianissimo of Thing! sighing whispers, built itself into Thing! a lathering Thing! climax Thing! of Recorded Thing! Lookout Thing! Point ThingThingThingThingThing!.
So, this thing. What is this thing we’re going to see again?
Alice’s glasses flamed in time with her passion for the Thing. It’s an outdoor sculpture designed by architect Brad Cloepfil. Should be some sexy concrete. I’ve wanted visit since I read about it in Dwell.
Great I thought to myself. Concrete. Why do architects get so flipping orgasmic over the stuff? It isn’t sexy, and it hurts when I fall on it. The sour taste of my foot flooded my mouth, a remnant of Barcelona that sealed my comment in my head.
A neo-classical pile of a house waved from its perch at a lazy bend in the river. We cracked the doors and stepped into desert air mingled with the swirling liquid sounds.
This house is like fifty we could see in Charleston. Really, we didn’t drive all the way out here to see THIS, did we?
I found Alice next to a series of concrete diving boards. They decorated the lawn before it took its suicidal plunge into the Columbia River.
She pointed her camera at the champagne-like flow of water, at the cloud creatures shifting in the sky, at blades of thirsty grass. But, she took nary a picture of the Thing.
We drove all the way out here to see this…..Thing. Why aren’t you taking pictures of it?
Andra. It’s not about the sculpture. The beauty of the design is how it frames everything around it. See how it highlights the hump of that mountain across the river? How its shadow enhances that open square of rusty rock peeking through the dirt? Can you hear the river reverberate when you stand right here? How it morphs when you move over there?
But, I wasn’t listening in my urge to see.
Maybe Lewis stood on that spot.
Or that one.
Maybe that was his whisper fluttering through the winds of time and breathing understanding into me.